Taking the shock out of culture shock: helping international students navigate transitions, part one

Inga Ackermann outlines what steps institutions can take to prepare international students for the potential culture shock they may experience on arrival at their new university

Inga Ackermann 's avatar
10 Sep 2021
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Advice on preparing international students for potential culture shock when they arrive at an overseas institution

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

University of Edinburgh

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Leaving home and moving to a new country on your own is a big step for anyone. Studying abroad is something students often plan and look forward to for years; nevertheless, many are surprised when they experience culture shock for the first time. The differences in how people speak, eat, work and socialise can be overwhelming, and it is reassuring to know this experience is completely normal and temporary.

You do not even need to travel abroad to experience culture shock. People undergo cultural adjustment when moving from any familiar environment to an unfamiliar one. All new students will find themselves transitioning between levels of study, academic expectations and support networks.

It is therefore the responsibility of any institution to take steps to support students through this potentially challenging experience. The work to help students overcome culture shock should start before they arrive at the university. This support can be helpful for all students – not just those coming from overseas.

Preparation is key: help students make peer-to-peer connections

One of the most helpful strategies to avoid or mitigate culture shock is to be prepared. Culture shock often occurs when reality does not match expectations. Therefore, the more international students know about what to expect, the more comfortable they will be with change.

There are many guides to any university or city readily available to read online. However, a more personal and authentic approach is for students to connect with peers who have been in their shoes and are happy to share their reflections. Ideally, institutions can facilitate links between new incoming cohorts and current students who can act as mentors, offering insight into what to expect and how to prepare.

Many universities have already adopted digital peer-to-peer student recruitment platforms. This tool allows prospective students to connect with student ambassadors and engage in direct, one-to-one conversations about any aspect of the university life.

When applicants turn to offer-holders, an official private Facebook group for new students can help connect students with each other. Current students could act as guest moderators and offer live panel discussions and Q&A sessions.

Student Instagram take-overs, especially Instagram stories, are great to showcase a day in life of a current student. Use Instagram polls and direct questions functions to make this more interactive.

To help students make school or programme specific connections, schools’ social media channels could facilitate FAQ sessions with current students (eg, programme representatives, club and society leads) around arrival time.

A great way to connect with current students is through campus tours, virtual or live. Student guides should be encouraged to share their personal stories and insider tips.

Create student-led advice resources

If you do not have the resources to forge links between new incoming cohorts and current students, pre-recorded short videos in which former and current international students share their experiences and advice, are an alternative solution. Let the content of the videos be led by the students themselves, based on their experiences.

In the videos, current students might reveal their main concerns before coming to study at your university. They can reflect on how they adapted to their new life. Students could speak about the factors that could contribute to culture shock and recommend strategies to help someone adjust quickly to their changed circumstances.

We published nine videos aimed at helping international students prepare themselves for life in Edinburgh. The most popular one was not about adapting to academic demands but rather about how to understand the Scottish accent.

If English is not your first language, it is natural you might have serious concerns whether you will be able to understand your lecturers and people around you. Yet the Scottish accent is not something that we usually refer to in our pre-arrival communication, which demonstrates why you should draw on the experiences of previous international students to inform your advice and information.

Here are some tips if you want to create a set of video resources:

  • feature students from different backgrounds and levels of study
  • provide general questions, but let students speak freely
  • if common themes emerge, collate them into separate videos
  • include subtitles
  • plan time for editing, especially if students are vlogging themselves
  • make students aware of these resources, and how to find them, in your pre-arrival communication, guides and online information sessions.

This advice will continue in a second resource, focused on what support institutions should provide once students arrive in their new home.

Inga Ackermann is global community coordinator at Edinburgh Global at the University of Edinburgh.

This advice is based on a previous feature “Navigating culture shock ” published on the Teaching Matters blog. 

Videos offering students’ insights into culture shock at The University of Edinburgh 

Advice and preparation for culture shock from the UK Council for International Student Affairs 

The W-Curve: the stages of transition that students are likely to experience in their first year 


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